Obama slam dunks Inspector General in KJ scandal…. Is the White House engaging in Chicago-style politics?

Last week, a top White House lawyer called the firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin “an act of political courage.” But is it really an act of “political cowardice?” 

(AP, Washington, 6/12/09) An inspector general fired by President Barack Obama said Friday he acted “with the highest integrity” in investigating AmeriCorps and other government-funded national service programs. Gerald Walpin said in an interview with The Associated Press that he reported facts and conclusions “in an honest and full way” while serving as inspector general at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Obama’s move follows an investigation by Walpin finding misuse of federal grants by a nonprofit education group led by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is an Obama supporter and former NBA basketball star. Johnson and a nonprofit education academy he founded ultimately agreed to repay half of $847,000 in grants it had received from AmeriCorps.

The inspector general found that Johnson, a former all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, had used AmeriCorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car.

In settling the case, the government agreed to lift its suspension of any future grants to the academy and Johnson agreed to immediately repay $73,000 in past grants. The academy was given 10 years to repay the remaining $350,000.

Walpin was criticized by the acting U.S. attorney in Sacramento for the way he handled the investigation of Johnson and St. HOPE Academy. Walpin defended his work on Friday. “I know that I and my office acted with the highest integrity as an independent inspector general should act,” he said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote President Obama a letter pointing to a law requiring that Congress be given the reasons an inspector general is fired. He cited a Senate report saying the requirement is designed to ensure that inspectors general are not removed for political reasons.

Grassley said Walpin had identified millions of dollars in AmeriCorps funds that were wasted or misspent and “it appears he has been doing a good job.”

Norman Eisen, the White House Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, said “Mr. Walpin was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the board to question his capacity to serve.” After the meeting, Eisen wrote, Walpin lost the confidence of the Corporation Board.  The White House conducted a review of the matter, and Walpin was fired. 

“It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general,” Obama said in the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Joe Biden, who also serves as president of the Senate. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general”.

The Inspector General Reform Act enacted last year dictates that the president must notify Congress of his intention to dismiss an IG 30 days before the termination takes effect.

The fired IG Walpin, a New York attorney, was appointed by then-President George W. Bush and sworn into office in January 2007 after being confirmed by the Senate, according to a news release on AmeriCorps’ Web site. Walpin graduated from College of the City of New York in 1952 and received a law degree in 1955 from Yale Law School. He was a partner with the New York City law firm Katten Muchin and Rosenman LLP for more than 40 years. He is 77 years old.

(Source: The above is a compilation of two stories by Bryan York and Pete Yost)    Links to both stories below:

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/blogs/beltway-confidential/NEW-White-House-refuses-to-answer-Senates-questions-on-AmeriCorps-IG-firing-48285832.html

http://www.sacbee.com/830/story/1939952.html?storylink=omni_popular

So what is AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service*?

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service and brought the full range of domestic community service programs under the umbrella of one central organization.

This legislation built on the first National Service Act signed by President H.W. Bush in 1990. It also formally launched AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that engage Americans in intensive service to meet the nation’s critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.

The newly created AmeriCorps incorporated two existing national service programs: the longstanding VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

AmeriCorps is made up of three main programs: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps).

AmeriCorps State and National*:

 AmeriCorps State and National supports a broad range of local service programs that engage thousands of Americans in intensive service to meet critical community needs.

AmeriCorps VISTA*: AmeriCorps VISTA provides full-time members to community organizations and public agencies to create and expand programs that build capacity and ultimately bring low-income individuals and communities out of poverty.

AmeriCorps NCCC*: The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) is a full-time residential program for men and women, ages 18-24, that strengthens communities while developing leaders through direct, team-based national and community service.

Corporation for National and Community Service*

AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency whose mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. In addition to AmeriCorps, the Corporation also administers Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. Together these programs engage more than 2 million Americans of all ages and backgrounds in service each year.

The Office of the Inspector General*

Created by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, the Corporation for National and Community Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducts and supervises independent and objective audits and investigations of Corporation programs and operations. Based on the results of these audits, reviews, and investigations, the OIG recommends policies to promote economy and efficiency and prevent and detect fraud and abuse in the Corporation’s programs and operations.

(Source*:  The above descriptions of AmeriCorp and the NCS are from AmeriCorps.gov) For more on AmeriCorps:

http://www.americorps.gov/

Unfortunately, while the organization’s mission as described by the website sounds noble, one can’t help but feel this is another poorly thought out government program ripe with opportunity for fraud and abuse. After reading about AmeriCorps on line I cynically wondered about possible connections to ACORN.

The first search I ran led to this:

ACORN took advantage of the federal agency a decade ago. As I wrote previously, ACORN, which is now notorious for its commingling of funds within its network of affiliates, used government resources to promote legislation.

A congressional report noted that there was “apparent cross-over funding between ACORN, a political advocacy group and ACORN Housing Corp. (AHC), a non profit, AmeriCorp [sic] grantee” that is a major affiliate of ACORN.

The government-funded AmeriCorps, which promotes public service, suspended AHC’s funding “after it was learned that AHC and ACORN shared office space and equipment and failed to assure that activities and funds were wholly separate.”

The report noted that, “AmeriCorps members of AHC raised funds for ACORN, performed voter registration activities, and gave partisan speeches. In one instance, an AmeriCorps member was directed by ACORN staff to assist the [Clinton] White House in preparing a press conference in support of legislation.” (“Report on the Activities of the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities during the 104th Congress,” Report 104-875, January 2, 1997)

Aware of this kind of abuse, earlier this year Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) tried to block ACORN from using AmeriCorps funding to promote its own political objectives, but ACORN allies, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), helped to defeat Vitter’s legislation. (Source: American Spectator, Matthew Vadum on 6.17.09) To read the complete article, go to:

http://spectator.org/blog/2009/06/17/americorps-and-acorn-go-way-ba

The reason offered for the termination also is interesting to say the least. The suggestion that Mr. Walpin, a 77 year old, “was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the board to question his capacity to serve” based on a single meeting would never pass the litmus test for termination in the private sector. However, suggesting without substantial proof, that an older employee was possibly a little senile would almost guarantee a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Again, I am left with the feeling that this firing was politically motivated. It looks more like payback for holding a political ally of the administration accountable for unscrupulous behavior than a warranted dismissal. The fact that the administration did not follow the required protocol of notifying Congress 30 days in advance of their intentions and failed to provide a reason at the time the firing was announced, alone are enough to make the firing suspect. When you add to that, the triggering event appears tied to the investigation of a political supporter it becomes difficult to dismiss without questions. Also remember that the rules of dismissal for an IG are in place to prevent politically motivated retaliation.

Even more concerning is what else was Walpin working on? Considering all the threats to investigate ACORN and the relationship between ACORN and AmeriCorps were they next? Yes, this is just speculation on my part but the swift and decisive action by the administration raises questions. If the administration is offended by the questions there is a simple solution – follow the rules!

Ironically, neither the mainstream media nor the Congress (who’s job it is) seems interested in the case or investigating the “facts”. The Bush administration caught a lot more heat when they changed out U.S. Attorneys even though these positions are political appointments that serve at the pleasure of the administration, unlike the IG position which is supposed to be a non partisan watch dog. Also let’s not forget that Mr. Johnson agreed to return $425,000. Would he have willingly done that if there had been no wrong doing?

So is this the kind of openness and transparency that we can continue to expect from the Obama administration? So far the administration has trampled the Constitution and seems to make up the rules as they go. (Example: retroactive taxes on Wall Street bonuses) This is starting to sound like good, old Chicago style politics, take out the opposition by whatever means necessary to win. This is not the change that anyone was hoping for or can believe in. Is there any integrity left in Washington?

“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake”. – Thomas Jefferson

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